Warning: This post contains content that may be disturbing to viewers.
Newly released video shows a North Carolina man’s final moments in a county jail, where he called out, “I can’t breathe,” as detention officers held him face down for 12 minutes and made jokes while trying to remove his handcuffs.
The footage was made public on Wednesday after a group of news outlets, including The News & Observer, a daily newspaper in Raleigh, and the Associated Press and The New York Times filed a petition for its release. The Daily Beast joined this coalition.
John Neville, a 56-year-old father of five, died three days after he was booked into the Forsyth County jail in December 2019. As we previously reported, Neville was asphyxiated after being placed in a hog-tie position at the Winston-Salem lockup. He died from a brain injury due to cardiac arrest, the autopsy report states.
Five former guards and one nurse—who is employed by Wellpath, a private contractor that provides medical services for the jail—are charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Neville’s death, which has sparked a wave of protests and a weeks-long occupation of Bailey Park just a few blocks from the jail.
The Daily Beast is publishing segments of the video, which may be disturbing to viewers.
On Tuesday, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough, Jr. held a press conference to publicly apologize to Neville’s family ahead of the video’s release. Neville’s son, Sean, and the family’s attorney, Michael Grace, were present for the statement.
Kimbrough said he wept over the footage, which he claimed has resulted in training and policy changes within the facility. “Your father has changed the way health care will be dispensed at the Forsyth County Detention Center, as well as how it will be dispensed throughout this region,” Kimbrough said.
“I have stood with you from the beginning … I will continue to stand with you through this process,” Kimbrough added. “History has tied us together forever and I will continue to stand with you and stand on the truth and what is right.”
The sheriff said that with the family’s permission, he will rename a wing of the jail after Neville in the future. “We’re not doing that just because. We’re doing it as a reminder to the men and women that work there of what happened that day... To let them know that life is paramount in how we do business,” he said.
Last week, a superior court judge ruled the sheriff’s office must release two video files, including body-cam footage of a guard who’s charged in Neville’s death. A slew of other videos, however, remain under seal. (Under state law, law enforcement videos are not public record but can be obtained by petitioning a judge.)
Neville was booked into the Forsyth County jail at about 3:25 a.m. on Dec. 1, after he was arrested on a warrant for allegedly assaulting a woman.
But in the early hours of Dec. 2, Neville fell from the top bunk bed where he slept. His cellmate told authorities he woke to a loud bang and saw Neville shaking on the floor; he thought Neville was having a seizure and pressed the emergency button. Jail staff arrived at 3:26 a.m. and found Neville sweating on the floor with vomit on his clothing and blood around his mouth in what appeared to be a “seizure-like” episode.
When a nurse woke him, Neville was “incoherent, seemed confused, uncooperative, and became aggressive—he tried to sit up, kick, and swing his arms,” the autopsy report states.
According to the video, officers and the nurse tell Neville at several points that he’s having a “medical emergency” but don’t call for emergency medical services.
“You’re okay. You’ve had a seizure,” the nurse says. “They’re just taking care of you. They’re doing this so you don’t hurt yourself. Nope. You’ve got to stay down. Don’t fight.”
Neville appears disoriented, groaning and trying to sit up, while one officer tells him, “You’re gonna be all right, buddy. All right? You’re gonna be all right. Having a little bit of a medical episode here.”
“We are here to help you,” a man who appears to be the same officer says.
Minutes later, Neville calls out, “Mama.”
“Help me, help me, help me. Please. Please,” Neville yells as officers cuff him.
The staff strap Neville to a chair and place a covering on his face, apparently to stop him from biting the detention officers, then haul him to another room, where the nurse takes his blood pressure.
The image of Neville strapped to a chair with a covering on his head, with detention officers circling him, is heartbreaking. “Help me, somebody!” he yells to them.
Guards move Neville to a single cell for observation, place him face down on a mattress and cuff his hands behind his back. Neville is heard shouting, “I can’t breathe! Help! Turn me over!”
“I can’t breathe!” he repeats over and over again.
“You’re breathing. You’re talking,” an officer replies.
Neville was placed in what’s been described in the press as a “hog-tie” position as he continued to plead for help.
About 2.5 minutes after Neville was held in a prone position, officers tried to remove his handcuffs but the key broke in the lock, the autopsy report notes. Jail staff then tried another key before resorting to two different sets of bolt cutters.
“The last intelligible phrase he made was around 3.5 minutes after [he was] placed prone on the mattress,” the autopsy report says.
A review of the video reveals that throughout the ordeal, one of the officers, apparently a supervisor, asks his fellow jailers if they need a break. The guards even make jokes while Neville is struggling on the floor.
“Whose cuffs were those?” the supervisor asks. When an officer replies, “Mine,” the man says, “It’s coming out of your paycheck.”
“Yes, sir. Those are actually a good pair, too,” the underling replies, and the supervisor laughs.
Minutes later, Neville is mostly quiet and an officer asks, “John, you all right?”
The handcuffs are finally removed after about 12 minutes of Neville lying on his stomach.
“You killed him!” one inmate can be heard wailing in the distance.
The detention officers leave the cell, and the nurse watches Neville through the window of the cell door for a minute. Her voice is quiet, but she seems to announce, “I can’t tell if he’s breathing.”
According to the autopsy, the jail staff left the room after officers removed Neville’s blue jumpsuit. They reentered after the nurse noticed Neville wasn’t breathing or moving. Staff attempted to resuscitate Neville and called for emergency medical services.
In the video, the nurse announces she can’t hear a heart rate and begins chest compressions.
Neville died at the hospital on the morning of Dec. 4.
The guards and nurse were charged criminally in early July, as protests over the death of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, raged across the country. The next court date for the accused is scheduled for November.
Those charged include officers Antonio Maurice Woodley Jr., 26; Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36; Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; and Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50. The nurse is Michelle Heughins, 44. (Williams and Woodley are Black, while the other officers are white, the sheriff’s office said.)
Two of Neville’s children told The Daily Beast they hoped the release of the video would lead to justice reforms in North Carolina and beyond.
They described their dad as a happy person, who loved playing basketball and rooting for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team. He worked in construction and loved dancing and cooking. But he also had a rough childhood. His mother died when he was a teenager, and as a child, he'd been physically abused by a relative.
Neville’s daughter, Brienne, told the Winston-Salem Journal: “I think our dad was a prime case of somebody who needed help because of trauma as a child but [never got it]. His struggle was that he wanted those things but didn’t know how to get those things.”
His son, Sean Neville, told The Daily Beast that when he watched the video of his father’s last moments, he was struck by the “callousness” of the guards.
“They viewed him as an inmate and not a person in distress. They’re checking on each other, saying, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ They’re not checking on him,” Sean said. “At one point, they were joking about the handcuffs.”
“Then they leave him in the cell. He’s on the ground, naked and lifeless in that cell alone,” Sean said. “It wasn’t until the nurse decided to go in and check on him and couldn’t find a pulse that they went in and called the ambulance.”
“That got my blood boiling,” Sean added. “There was just a lack of care for him as a person who needed help. He was a human being in trouble, who needed someone to help him get to where he needed to be—at the hospital—and that didn’t happen.”
Neville said his family initially wanted to keep the video private because it’s difficult to watch. They ultimately decided the public needed to see what happened.
“If it helps other people, we can set aside our grief, we can set aside our pain. It might mean another family never has to go through what we did. If we help one person, then all of this is worth it,” Neville said last week.
Tasha Martin, one of Neville’s daughters, said, “We’re not seeking revenge. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to another family.”
“This is bigger than our family,” she said.